A ranch in the desert

I grew up on a ranch in the Arizona desert, west and somewhat north of Phoenix by a couple of hours (at least it was a couple hours when I was a kid; Phoenix is considerably closer now).

Date Creek Ranch could best be described as rustic. That is, if rustic is defined as: rusty, worn out, cracked and somewhat held together with baling wire and earnest hopes. Otherwise, it wasn’t.

I’m not kidding here. Everything on the place was ancient and only worked when it felt like it. Every vehicle had its tricks that a person had to know to get from Point A to Point B. The old Ford tractor? No brakes and the battery didn’t work. You wanted to stop? Drop the bucket. You wanted to stop on a hill? Good luck. Accidentally pop the clutch and kill the engine five minutes after Dad dropped you off miles from the house? Walk.

We had a truck that was so old, and had been repaired so many times, that I think the only original part remaining was the cab. Even the bed had been replaced. One time while I was driving it the battery bounced out and fell on the road.

The buildings were in just as bad a shape. The shop and the barn had both apparently been built on a weekend by drunk cowboys. The house? The whole building was completely termite-riddled. Piles of sawdust appeared as if by magic on the kitchen floor every day. Once I was trying to nail molding along the edge of a piece of paneling in the living room wall but it just wouldn’t hold. When I peeked under the paneling I saw why: the studs underneath were almost completely gone, more like 1x1s than 2x4s. To this day I have no idea why the roof didn’t just collapse on all of us. Naturally the roof leaked.

The horses, at least the ones we kids were stuck with, were the same way. Beauty was a good example. The name fit because she was black, but she sure was no beauty. She reportedly had chowed down on loco weed one time in the past so the local lore was you could still ride her, but if you got her too hot, she’d go mad and who knows what she’d do then. (Probably not true, I know. But I sure enough believed it.) Riding her was like riding a dead log. She didn’t respond to anything.

But at least she was nicer than Lady, who was anything but. Lady was so old she’d turned pure white, except for the small brown spots speckling her. I guess even horses get liver spots. Lady was cranky and mean. The good thing about her was she’d never bolt on you. Nothing scared her. A lot of horses you get off and let go of the reins, they might get a mind to leave. Not Lady. She was tired and she wasn’t going anywhere she didn’t have to.

She didn’t have any patience though. If you were little, like I was when I was starting out, getting on a horse was a struggle. I had to put my knee in the stirrup, grab the saddle strings , and pull myself laboriously upwards. Lady didn’t like that for some reason. If I spent more than a couple seconds at it, she’d twist her head back around and bite me. No kidding. Rotten horse.

More than once I’d be standing by her, maybe adjusting something on the saddle, not paying any attention, and she’d just lift her front foot and put it right on mine. Then she’d lean on it, give a sigh and just kind of stand there, enjoying herself. Being little, as I mentioned before, there wasn’t much I could do but flail at her shoulder ineffectually and scream until she got tired of the game and let me go.

On long rides in the heat it was easy to sort of doze off in the saddle and kind of lose track of my surroundings. Not on Lady, though. She’d wait until we were walking by a cactus or we were near a barbed wire fence and out of nowhere she’d just kind of sidestep and run me right into it. I’m telling you, this was pure malice on her part. My brother and sister will attest to it too.

One time a friend came out to visit. I must have been about seven. He got  on Lady and the darned horse plain old refused to move for him. Being somewhat of a complete idiot back then (a condition I still haven’t fully gotten over) I ran up behind her and whacked her on the butt with a stick.

She returned the favor, giving me both hooves in the stomach. I woke up on the couch some time later. And I never did that again.

Then there was Misty, Lady’s offspring. Misty got ruined when she was young by a cowboy working for us who used a spade bit on her. A spade bit is a nasty piece of work that cuts a horse’s mouth if you yank on it much. The end result was she had what’s known as a hard mouth, almost impossible to turn. If you really wanted her to turn, you had to reach way down and grab the reins near the bit and pull hard. Sometimes even that didn’t work. Sometimes she’d just turn her head to the side but still keep running straight ahead.

Misty liked to run and she could run fast. The problem was that stopping was just as hard as turning: pretty much impossible for a little kid. One time we came down the hill, running hard for the corral between the barn and the shop. She was happy to go. Going that way meant the saddle was coming off and she could get the annoying gnat off her back. I realized my mistake about fifty yards from the corral and I started hauling on the reins with both hands, leaning back, pulling with everything I had.

Didn’t work. The corral got closer and closer. It was looking bad.

Fortunately, she did stop. The full, four-footed skid, right before the gate.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t hanging onto anything. I just kind of rose up in the air, bounced some very tender parts off the saddle horn a couple times, then folded up and fell in the dirt. Where I lay for a while.

Oh, the good old days…

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